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For the first time, state inmates have access to free tampons

July 31, 2018

Nina McCoy counts herself as one of the lucky ones. With the help of her family, she could afford the personal-hygiene products she needed during her two years at Shakopee women’s prison for a drunken-driving conviction.

But other inmates without the means to buy tampons from the commissary sometimes had to make their own with toilet paper or flimsy prison-issued pads, she said. Tampons were “a luxury,” McCoy said.

That all changed July 1, when the state corrections department updated its policies to provide a variety of unlimited menstrual products, including tampons, to inmates at no cost.

“It’s a matter of gender responsiveness,” said Warden Tracy Beltz, who heads the Shakopee prison, the only state facility for women. “Women’s institutions need to do what we can within the confines of solid security practices and resources to accommodate women’s unique needs.”

The move, which comes amid a federal push to provide better care for incarcerated women, will cost the state an estimated $30,000 annually. Beltz said they hope to recoup that with additional legislative funding.

Erica Gerrity, founder of the Minnesota Prison Doula Project, which provides parenting and pregnancy support to incarcerated women, called the changes “a small step forward to a more just and equitable criminal justice system.”

Until now, Shakopee inmates were provided 30 free pads per month. If a woman needed more than that, she was required to ask an officer or pay for extras at the commissary.

Many couldn’t afford to do that. Base pay for prisoners ranges from 12 to 25 cents an hour. A 10-count pack of tampons would require roughly 23 hours’ worth of pay.

As a result, women behind bars used tampons as bargaining chips. They were traded illegally or used by correctional officers to maintain control, according to former inmates and women’s advocates.

Heather Oldeen, who was recently released from Shakopee, said before the policy change she was forced to double up on sanitary pads and ask correctional officers for more — with no guarantee they would oblige.

“It depends on the day or their mood,” said Oldeen, of Owatonna. “It’s humiliating and embarrassing, but there’s nothing else you can do.

“And their response is, ‘You shouldn’t have come to prison.’ ”

Though trading is strictly prohibited inside the facility and punished with segregation, women often share their supplies. Should inmates attempt to make their own, they also could be punished for “improper use of state property” — though Beltz said no one was being disciplined for that.

Advocating for change

Fueled in part by the #MeToo movement and vocal advocacy groups, the issue of adequate menstrual supplies has become an issue in recent years. Though the vast majority of prisoners are men, the rate of incarcerated women has soared 700 percent nationwide between 1980 and 2014.

Last summer, U.S. Sens. Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris introduced federal legislation aimed at improving the treatment of female prisoners. Their bill, called the Dignity Act, would prohibit shackling pregnant offenders, provide free personal-hygiene products and ensure access to a gynecologist for federal inmates.

The following month, the Federal Bureau of Prisons mandated that menstrual pads and tampons be provided free of charge to all female inmates housed in federal institutions.

Nearly a dozen states have crafted similar legislation. Nine states, including Minnesota, have eliminated the sales tax on feminine-hygiene products.

Even popular culture has caught on. Last season on the Netflix prison drama “Orange is the New Black,” an entire episode was spent on inmates not having access to tampons.

Amy Fettig, deputy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project, penned a blog post earlier this year advocating for reformed correctional policies on feminine care.

“As long as women’s menstrual needs are considered a privilege and not a right, and they can be taken away on a whim or used to coerce or humiliate women, the degradation and abuse will continue in prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers nationwide,” she wrote.

Earlier this month, inmates at Shakopee found three-tiered organizers in each prison unit filled with maxipads and two different sizes of tampons.

In recent years, the prison has overhauled several policies to make childbirth for inmates more closely mirror what women experience outside of prison. Minnesota became only the 20th state in 2014 to outlaw the use of restraints during and just after childbirth. It also became the first state to guarantee offenders access to birth coaches, or doulas.

More recent changes ensure that expectant mothers can receive parenting courses, additional food, and a breast pump to maintain milk production in cases where a new mother will be released soon enough to breast-feed at home.

Amanda Dokka, who delivered her son while serving five years at Shakopee for a 2007 drug conviction, said she welcomed the changes. While incarcerated, she was not given extra menstrual pads for post-birth bleeding, she said, and accidents were not uncommon.

“We begged for [tampons] all the time,” said Dokka, of Eagan. “If you’re that desperate for one, you’d give up literally everything for it.”

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648

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